Senate Bill 834, currently pending in the Oklahoma Legislature, would gradually exempt Oklahoma school districts from state mandates and allow local districts to manage, develop and take responsibility for the success and failure of their curriculum.
Deregulation of Oklahoma's public school curriculum is a good thing for Oklahoma teachers. Allowing teachers to teach based on class needs and not on the requirements of a standardized curriculum will improve education by allowing teachers to exhibit their professionalism and ability. Oklahoma teachers are the best-educated and trained pedagogical army in the country.
Coming out of Oklahoma colleges, our teachers are like newly trained Marines ready for battle. However, they are quickly placed into a classroom and instructed to teach a cookie-cutter curriculum from a cookie-cutter textbook, with little or no control or input.
One Oklahoma history teacher said she was teaching the Civil War to her class this year and found herself on the third day of the topic not yet finished with the subject. The state-mandated curriculum only allowed her three days (essentially three hours) for the whole of the Civil War. She was forced to make the decision to finish teaching her students the complete history of the war, or stop and move on to the next item on the state's curriculum. Believing that her students' learning who won the Civil War was more important, she wisely devoted another day to the topic. However, she did so fearing it would place her class in jeopardy of not having sufficient time on another mandated topic.
Wouldn't it be great for teachers and students if a teacher could base his or her curriculum on the abilities and needs of the classroom of students instead of teaching to a bureaucratically devised test? Understanding that every classroom in the state is different, how could the same curriculum mandated to each classroom in the state be more appropriate than the judgment of the local teacher?
As a point of disclosure, I admit I am the son of the 2001 Oklahoma Supreme Court Teacher of the Year, so I have a soft spot in my heart for good teachers.
Deregulating Oklahoma's classrooms should only benefit the level of curriculum in this state, but this bill has its pitfalls.
The elimination of teacher due process could have the undesired effect of leading to an increase in teacher termination litigation. The due process system in place today limits the basis of litigation by teachers so long as administrators and school boards follow the law. This dramatically decreases the number of claims brought by teachers against school districts each year. However, if you take away a teacher's right to a hearing before the local board and the protections afforded teachers under the law, the only recourse remaining for a teacher wronged will be to file suit.
Oklahoma Legislature, take note: Although deregulating Oklahoma's classrooms is a noble concept, and placing more control with local districts is welcome by most, make sure you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The outcome could be very litigious.
Smith is an attorney living in Oklahoma City.